A little over two years ago Morgan Stanley predicted mobile would overtake desktop use by 2015. More recently in 2011 Microsoft suggested the changeover would take place by 2014. Now a report published by the China Internet Networks Information Center suggests both estimates were conservative, with more Chinese now connecting to the Internet via mobile phone (smart phone) than desktop computers. Despite the data being a little misleading (desktop and laptop users were counted separately, when combining them might have seemed more reasonable), the overwhelming shift toward mobile browsing is very clear.
Closer to home smart phones are quickly becoming a mainstream part of many New Zealanders’ lives. Astute businesses are taking note and we’re fielding a steady flow of enquiry from owners wanting to know how best to take advantage of the rising number people accessing their website via a mobile device.
When it comes to getting started with mobile there are several options, not to mention an abundance of buzzwords, all of which make it hard enough to understand the differences let alone know which route to take. In this post I’ll demystify each approach and offer up some pros and cons of each. By the end you'll know your 'responsive web design' from your 'dedicated mobile sites' and 'mobile apps', but more importantly you’ll be better placed to decide which approach is most appropriate for your business.
Broadly speaking there are three main options when it comes to beefing up your approach to mobile:
As the name would suggest, a dedicated mobile website is a separate version of your website designed exclusively for mobile devices. Usually mobile websites add a prefix or suffix to the domain (e.g. 'm.examplesite.co.nz' or 'www.examplesite.co.nz/m') and users are automatically redirected to the mobile version when they access the website via a mobile device. Mobile websites often contain less content and a reduced feature set compared to their desktop equivalent.
When to use it:
If your users have significantly different goals when accessing your website from their mobile device compared to a desktop computer, then having a separate mobile website can often deliver a better experience that focuses purely on the needs of the mobile user.
Pros of a Mobile Website:
Cons of a Mobile Website:
Responsive website design involves creating a website whereby the layout automatically adjusts and resizes according to the size of the screen it is being viewed on, whether that be a 3.5 inch screen or a 24 inch desktop monitor (or larger). Taking this approach creates a seamless user experience across all devices, plus as all content is served from the same URL regardless of device there is no need for a separate web address for mobile.
Check out these inspirational examples of what can be achieved using responsive web design.
When to use it:
Responsive web design works best when your website doesn't contain a substantial amount of advanced functionality and user intent is not significantly different for mobile users vs desktop users.
Pros of Responsive Website Design:
Cons of Responsive Website Design:
The easiest way to understand apps is to think of them as software programs for your mobile phone. These programs can range from a simple calendar application to a complex map tool that references your location via GPS. Mobile apps can be either downloaded to your smart phone from 'app stores' such Apple’s App Store or Google Play, or they can be accessed via your smart phone’s web browser.
When to use it:
Mobile apps are generally best suited to performing functions that use a mobile device’s processing power and sensors (such as the camera or GPS). They can be a good option if your target users are need access to your services/information regularly when they’re offline (i.e. not connected via Wi-Fi or 3G), or when a highly personalised or customised experience is required (e.g. mobile banking apps, NZ Met Service app).
Pros of a Mobile App:
Cons of a Mobile App:
It's still early days for the mobile web and the development of the technology, the devices and platforms is moving at breakneck pace.
When it comes to figuring out which approach to take it really boils down to is this; which approach is best for your target users and which will help you best achieve your business goals from going mobile. Ask yourself the following questions: What content needs to be served? What information do users want/need? How will the behaviour of your mobile users be different than those of your desktop users? What precisely are you trying to achieve with your mobile strategy?
As for me, I tend to favour responsive web design because it's simpler (one URL for all devices), easier to maintain, and is more future proof than its alternatives. Throw in the fact the Google and Bing are also supporters and my preference sits well with me, particularly from an SEO point of view. Of course, there's most definitely a time and a place for dedicated mobile websites and mobile apps; like with so many things in this industry there really is no one size fits all solution for mobile (not yet, at least).
How about you - what’s your preferred approach to mobile? Got an experience you'd like to share about using, designing or building responsive websites, mobile sites or mobile apps? If so drop a comment below. Alternatively, if you’d just like some help figuring out how to optimise your online presence for mobile, simply get in touch.